Don’t Look – Long Way Down

I extended my 20′ ladder to its full length, and placed it against the front wall of Mr. Stephen Edmonson’s house.  I clambered up, I stood on the top available rung, and still fell about four feet short of being able to peer into the hive.

This beehive removal was going to be tricky.

Stephen has a lovely house over in Ridgeland, about a 45 minute drive from my house, and he has bees that have infested the corner of the house. As he explained it,

Last year, we had a huge swarm of bees out in the tree right there in the front yard last year, and they just stayed there for a long time – it was just amazing.  Eventually, they moved into that spot right there. Then a couple of months ago, the AC guy got stung a couple of times in my attic, and there are a lot of dead bees up there.  So I contacted another beekeeper, who just got too busy…. and then I called you.


From the top of the ladder, I was at a better vantage point, but it was also very clear that my ladder was not going to cut it.  It was also clear that there was NOTHING to hang onto. But the bees were industriously running in and out of the hive, bringing in their groceries and doing their bit to pollinate the world.

I came back and told Stephen, “I will need to get a better ladder, but I can do it.  I will need somebody to help with this one, just because it is high, though.  But we should be able to get it out of there with little problem.  I’ll send you an estimate, and we’ll schedule the work.”

Armed with a sturdy rental ladder from Home Depot, I returned this past Saturday to take on the job, with a friend and beekeeper Shannen Blackledge.  Even with the taller ladder, though, the drop from the top was formidable.  My auditorium job (blog post still pending) was probably higher, but at least there were some branches to hang onto while I worked. Not so here…

Every removal job I have done has been an exercise in problem solving.  How do I get to the bees, how do I open the hole enough to get them out; how do I remove them safely (both safety for me and safety for them) and how do I keep them from returning?

Finally started, I removed the molding on the face of the hive, and pried up the roofing just enough to see the extent of the comb.  And it was beautiful.  Layer after layer of beautiful, amber-colored comb. And curious bees looking back at me, without aggression or anger, just checking me out, then going back to clean up the mess I had already started to make.

That mess was about to get a whole lot worse.

Peeking inside.

I removed the shingles from the overhang (overbalancing once for a frightening moment).  And then tried to pry loose the waferboard (OSB) underneath.  The OSB extended under and through, and was tied into place from multiple directions.  After a half hour of trying to untie the Gordian knot, I got out the Sawzall, and cut through the OSB that capped the area. The comb was attached to the waferboard; removing it broke the very top of the comb off, and the delicious smell of honey permeated everything.  And the honey started to drip.

Honeycomb attached to waferboard

It dripped onto the ladder.  It dripped onto the light fixture.  I dripped onto the tarp (placed on the patio in an odd moment of foresight on my part) and onto me.  I invited Shannen to take a look from my perch on top of the ladder.  After a brief glance, her nice, clean suit was no longer either.

Then I started removing comb.  The first piece is almost always the toughest, as you have to try and remove the comb from the top, bottom, and sides, all without destroying the comb or spilling a drop of honey or pinching a bee or overbalancing.

…revealed more beneath.

This time, I successfully used a combination of bbq tongs and a long, thin jabsaw that let me cut the pieces free by sliding between the pieces of comb. What surprised me was how far back I could feel the comb.  The open space between combs extended more than 3 feet back… well beyond where I should have encountered the brick of the wall.  Oh, man, I thought.  This is going to be a MUCH bigger job than I thought.

A few more pieces of comb removed, and it was clear what had happened.  Instead of brick, there was foil-backed styrofoam board, covering an opening in the wall.  The bees had chewed through the styrofoam, and the ladies had built two combs and filled one with honey.

This was how the girls were getting into the attic. This was how the AC guy got stung.

Meanwhile, I am frantically looking for the queen.  My previous removals have not resulted in complete success, because I did not find the queen, and separate her out.  In one removal, she escaped and hid, only to return to the scene and instruct her followers to build more comb.  In another, I feel sure she got smushed by the vacuum (I have since lowered the amount of suction I use).  None has resulted in a queen that is viable.

So this time, I am on the lookout.  I extract a bee with an enormous abdomen, and am thrilled.  I have found the queen! Then I find another.  And another.

Apparently, this whole race of bees has huge distended abdomens.  And because they are coated in honey, it is hard to tell.  (Eventually, I captured her.  I think).

Finally, after dozens of trips up and down the ladder, each time carrying more brood and honey and comb down from the perch, and each time smearing more honey onto each rung of the ladder, I had hit the end of what I could reach.

There were still eight pieces of comb that needed to be removed.  And I had no real way to get to them.  The remainder were bracketed by multiple 2x4s, and closed in – completely inaccessible.  I reached in to cut the next one free, but every time I would reach to retrieve it, I would only manage to push it further away.

By this time, I had worked the site from 9:30 to mid afternoon, and I was getting tired and a little more accident prone.  I had managed to stave off a couple of slips (note to self: buy shoes with better traction) and a sickening slide of the ladder against the now-slick brick of the building (note to self: buy a ladder stabilizer) and a scary moment with the Sawzall (note to self:….um.)

Honeycomb’s big, yeah, yeah, yeah…

I worked out the only solution I could come up with.  One more board was removed from the front – a small section of 2×4 that ran along the face of the opening.  Once I removed that piece, I had access to the remainder of the comb, which was very fresh, bright, new comb with pure honey inside.

All of the family – Stephen, his wife, and his four beautiful kids – all got in on the action at different points in the day.  For them, and for the passersby that stopped to ask us questions, we carved out and shared honey.

Then took the rest back with us.  (Where it now sits, in mason jars, ready for consumption….).  And finally, the removal of the comb was complete.

All (all!) that remained at this point was removal of the bees, cleaning the empty space, and relocating the bees to a new home.

It had already been a long day at this point, and it was not getting any shorter.  Shannen put another bottle of water in my hand – she had been carefully monitoring me for dehydration all day long, and fed me bottle after bottle of water.  A true life saver.

I attached my beevac to the shorter ladder and climbed up three more times to remove as many bees as I could reach.  Many would come back from the field later that evening and next day, but I managed to fill three buckets with bees, each getting set aside for placement once we got the comb moved to a new location.

I doused the entire opening with ammonia, which got the bees excited, but did not induce them to leave.  Finally, once the majority of the sticky mess had been turned into an ammonia-y mess, And most of the bees were gone, I added the poison to keep them from coming back and reoccupying the DMZ.

The final step was to get the bees installed in a new home.  I considered all my options.  The ones I favored all involved 3Bs – beer, benadryl, and bed, and leaving the bees for the next day.  But to give them the best chance at survival, I needed to get them into a new home as soon as possible.

I finally decided that I would drop them into a top-bar hive on Eddie Brook’s property.  Two different removals have ended up on Eddie’s doorstep, and one of the hives had completely absconded, so there was space.

I cut comb, wrapped rubber bands around the comb, and strapped the pieces on a top bar, fitting them into the box.  Then I suited up, and dumped all three buckets of bees into their new home, wishing them luck and leaving them behind. So that I could head to a place where three different Bs awaited my attention.

Reports from the field:

From Mr. Edmonson, following the removal:  On Sunday there was a huge swarm of them all around our house. Hundreds where you removed the hive. We almost couldn’t go outside, they were attacking us in the front and back yard. We left after lunch on Sunday and just got back this afternoon. I looked up at the hive area, and I could see no more than 3 bees buzzing around and a lot of dead ones on the ground. So you must have gotten the queen.

And from Eddie Brooks:  There are LOTS of bees buzzing and happy around the new hive.  They look good.

Some Lessons Learned:

  • Ladder stabilizers are a must for high jobs.
  • Bring the top bar hive with you so you can tie off comb as you remove it.
  • More tupperware will always be needed.
  • Benadryl tablets might not be a bad thing to bring along. 
  • Hornet spray splatters back on you (and burns!) at close range.
  • Granola bars are a requirement.  A full meal in the middle of the day would be bad, but hunger at the end of the day is bad, too.
End result, I think this will be a success.  The bees are now no longer in the house, and a carpenter can come and do the repair work without fear of being stung.  And the bees have a new home that they can live in, with attention and care being paid to their well being.
Can’t wait to see them building more comb.

Published by Company Bee

Novice beekeeper trying to help out.

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